The year 2001 had just begun and there was rebellion in the air. Independent Women by Destiny’s Child topped the charts. More and more people were ripping music onto their computers from CDs, or accessing it for free through file-sharing platforms like Napster. And in the midst of all this, Steve Jobs took to the stage at the Macworld Expo on a cold and rainy day in San Francisco to pronounce his vision for the future of music.
Striding back and forth on stage, he spent two minutes lambasting the world’s choice of digital music players. “They’re too complex,” he railed. These programs were clunky and packed with restrictions, like limiting CD burn speed or failing to offer MP3 encoding. But he had an answer.
“We’re going to change all this today,” he announced, “with something we call iTunes.” The crowd, as it so often did at Apple’s events, raised the roof with cheers.
This was the birth of a revolutionary bit of software that millions of people came to love. But iTunes lived long enough to see itself become the villain. Now, 17 years after that launch speech, Apple has finally killed off iTunes as we know it. This week the firm announced that iTunes would be split into separate apps for accessing music, podcasts and TV shows.
To understand what went so right and then so wrong for the program, one really has to go back to that pivotal speech in 2001. It was part of Jobs’ grand plan to make personal computers the centrepiece of people’s digital lives. This was the place we should manage the content of our lives – music, photos, emails and video.
As for existing efforts to organise digital music, Jobs was right. Music apps of the era were pretty awful. They looked hopelessly naff, with low-fidelity glass-effect interfaces sporting big rounded corners. Like a sort of digital mutant, a cartoon-like version of the façade on an old hi-fi. Plus, using these programs to manage libraries of MP3, WAV and AIFF files was a pain.
Whether or not the record industry liked it, iTunes ended up changing how people bought music forever
It’s ironic that one of the things that irritated people about iTunes in the end was something that made it so refreshing back in its early days – its emphasis on file management. That was actually a godsend at the time.
And iTunes looked better than would-be rivals, too. Few remember, but the code for the program was actually acquired by Apple when it bought the rights to software called SoundJam MP. The developers who made SoundJam moved in-house at Apple and tweaked their software, for example by adding the ability to burn music to CDs. Renamed “iTunes”, the program was announced nine months before the iPod, which was unveiled in October 2001.
At the iPod launch, Jobs boasted that the new device could hold 1,000 songs. It was the size of a deck of cards. With Apple’s FireWire cable, users could zap 1,000 songs from iTunes onto their iPod in less than five minutes. This was a perfect marriage of hardware and software, an ecosystem initially only usable with Macs that Apple could market as a package – and which users, naturally, would have to buy into in full in order to receive all the benefits.
Hell freezes over
The iTunes store launched in 2003, allowing people to buy music directly from Apple, and allowing artists to distribute their music without having to sign for a major licensing company. In its first week, one million downloads were sold, ousting Walmart and Best Buy as the top music retailers in the US. iTunes was so popular that PC users craved it, and it launched on Windows in the same year – what Jobs joked as hell freezing over. The program quickly become a place where one both bought and curated one’s digital music collection. Whether or not the record industry liked it, it ended up changing how people bought music forever.
Looking back, it’s obvious iTunes wanted to be seen as the digital equivalent of a carefully crafted shelf of treasured vinyl records. The format may not have lasted the test of time, but you can understand why Apple wanted to give digital music a prestige feel. After all, people were paying money for each of those MP3s – about 99 cents in the US or 99p in the UK – at a time when pirated music, downloaded freely and illegally via peer-to-peer programs like Napster, was very common.
iTunes was without a doubt the thing that legitimised paying for music, TV shows and films that you downloaded from the internet. I still remember watching the blue progress bar shimmer and slowly tick upwards as I downloaded a film I had purchased over a mediocre broadband connection. It was charming in a weird way.
And the very word podcast comes from “iPod” and “broadcast” – where did most people get their podcasts? iTunes. Podcasting today is booming and although audio blogging predates iTunes, the program was instrumental in introducing people to this form of entertainment in the early 2000s.
iTunes was without a doubt the thing that legitimised paying for music, TV shows and films that you downloaded from the internet
Many people encountered the concept of a playlist for the first time thanks to iTunes. And there was fun to be had with network features. At university, I and others shared playlists of our favourite tracks via iTunes so we could listen to each other’s music collections privately. And then go and tell people which songs sucked and which ones didn’t.
In his biography of the Apple co-founder, Walter Isaacsson describes Steve Jobs showing iTunes to a New York Times journalist the afternoon after he gave his 2001 speech. The psychedelic patterns on screen – visual accompaniments that twisted and flexed as songs played – made Jobs relive dropping acid when he was younger. He said that people who had never taken the drug would never fully understand him. With iTunes, Apple created the platform that really allowed people to turn on, tune in and drop out.
Sign of the times
But eventually the program suffered from its own ambition. It incorporated too many functions and different types of media, including “iTunes LPs”, which gave users music as well as additional content about, say, a classic rock album. Instead of just being a bucket for all your music, it became a digital media behemoth, a shop, a device manager and a DJ.
All of that functionality required constant updates, which frustrated users. And the program seemed to become slower and less easy to use with time, not the other way around.
There were other missteps. In 2014, Apple famously caused outrage by giving a free copy of the U2 album Songs of Innocence to everyone with an iTunes account, whether they wanted it or (mainly) not. Its 20,000-word-long terms and conditions was longer than Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And far less entertaining.
How could a program that manages a finite collection of digital media on your own hard-drive compete with services like Spotify or YouTube that give you access to seemingly infinite content online?
Most of all, though, iTunes was a victim of changing technology. As high-speed broadband became the norm, streaming music and even HD films has become commonplace. How could a program that manages a finite collection of digital media on your own hard-drive compete with services like Spotify or YouTube that give you access to seemingly infinite content online?
There’s been plenty of debate over whether streaming is having a negative impact on music, but from a listening functionality point of view, it’s hard to praise a system like iTunes over it.
All of which may explain the response to the news of iTunes retirement. Among those applauding the execution of this once-celebrated program was Wired, which said, “good riddance” and The Verge, which described iTunes as “Apple’s most hated app”. Not everyone is dancing on iTunes’ grave, though, including Billy Steele at Engadget who writes, “iTunes isn't dead, it's multiplying.”
That may be true in an even broader sense. The basic template for interacting with music digitally was laid down by iTunes. We might stream the content now, but playlists, sharing and portability are still at the core of the digital listening experience. For many, the place where they first learned that such things could exist was not some website – it was iTunes.
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